The holidays are in full swing with a lot of festivals, photo opportunities, and visits from our favorite holiday characters! While just about everyone likes Santa Claus, be sensitive to the fact that though he might look happy and jolly to you, to most dogs he is a complete stranger. He often has a furry face, unusual attire and often a strange, lumbering walk. His voice is often booming. With all that facial hair and a padded suit, it is difficult to pick up on body language. No wonder some dogs freak out when meeting Kris Kringle. Kids too for that matter!
Even at our dog school, we will occasionally get a visit from Santa Claus. We put the outfit on slowly, piece by piece IN FRONT OF THE DOGS, talking to them and dishing out treats the entire time. It is all fun and games until that beard goes on and then a handful of dogs flip out because a stranger suddenly appeared right in front of them! How upsetting is that!?!? Some work through their fear and anxiety quickly when they realize it's really just one of us inside that funny suit. Others never fully recover and make it clear they do NOT want their picture taken with this weirdo.
If you want to have your dog's picture taken with Santa, this year, by all means give it a try if your dog is comfortable meeting new people and being in busy environments. However, also remember that unless your dog is a seasoned vet at posing with Santa, it might be a completely overwhelming experience for him. Every Santa is different too-some move slow and are more gentle while others are very animated and loud. Go slow, be positive, reassuring and be open to calling the whole thing off if your dog is displaying signs of stress. Sometimes if Santa hands out high-value treats this can be helpful but some dogs would not want to eat steak if Santa is attached to the other end. So just be open to what shows up.
Common stress signals you might see but not immediately recognize? Yawning, lip licking, tucked tail, itching or sniffing out of context. If your dog starts giving Santa 'whale eye' (you will see exposed whites of his eyes), you can be sure he is at least a bit uncomfortable with the situation. Facial tension, looking away, ears back, cowering and trying to leave are also good indicators that your dog is ready to go.
Good Santas will recognize when a dog (or kid!) really isn't enjoying the experience and will do what they can to make it better. Far too often, the Santa is trying too hard to make the photo happen so may not be as sensitive as we would like to comfort a dog or child in stress. This is where you must step in as their advocate and either reassure your dog that Santa is good and fun OR be willing to call it off.
Remember to look at situations from your dog's perspective and be tuned in to what their behavior and body language is telling you. This doesn't mean you should be afraid to expose your dog to new situations but be sensitive and be ready to comfort when needed, helping your dog work through situations if necessary and if possible.
Happy Holidays and don't forget to have fun with your dog!